Empathy in customer service: Why it’s important and how to build it into your team?

This article covers why empathy is the most important trait for customer service, what makes it more relevant today than ever before, and how you can help your teams develop and train this empathy “muscle”

Prior to social media and digital tools, it was a challenge to understand who the customer was and what they wanted to satisfy their needs.

Even with all the social and digital tools to help us get close to customers, learn from and listen to them, and engage with them, we still are behind to be able to get in front of and properly manage their expectations. 

We have long been in what Forester has called “the age of the customer”. With all this information available to customers, they are empowered to do their own research. They will go to whoever delivers the consistent, high-value experience they expect. 

Is it surprising to know customers have done more than 75 percent of their research before contacting you? That’s why it is so important that you have your teams aligned and processes in place to provide a good experience before a customer needs you.

Customers are telling brands what they need by their actions but are company leaders listening?

It doesn’t appear likely.

Why is it important to show empathy to customers?

 

In a study conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, it found “many executives have tried to put themselves in their customers’ shoes emotionally. Yet, even with mountains of customer data at their disposal, executives are still susceptible to projecting their needs onto their customers with an inside-out point of view.”

The result is executive-customer misalignment, as depicted in this chart:

Interestingly, Forrester’s CX Index, which measures how successfully a company delivers customer experiences that create and sustain loyalty, showed pre-pandemic that companies were struggling to create and sustain a human connection with their customers. And even though there has been an increase in the 2021 CX Index, Harley Manning, Forrester VP and research director, says “brands must build experiences that help them empathetically engage with their customers, especially during volatile times. We know this is important because experiences associated with positive emotions, such as resolving issues quickly and demonstrating empathy, create and sustain customer loyalty.”

This is why empathy is so important.

Empathy is even more important in times of uncertainty and anxiety when it is even more difficult for people to make decisions. A recent Gallup study found in times of uncertainty, four emotional needs were required to be present to make people feel engaged and connected: trust, compassion, stability, and hope. All four of these needs are grounded in empathy. It’s important to use empathy to establish rapport and help customers make prompt and informed decisions.

What does empathy in customer service mean?


Empathy is customer care’s most important trait. Empathy enables us to connect with customers, build customer trust, and drive customer loyalty. Empathy drives a company’s success. If empathy is missing, companies won’t be able to survive and thrive, and will wind up as a cautionary tale.

To be good at empathy, though, customer service teams must know the customer on a very intimate level to be able to help them achieve their business outcomes.

Thus, we have to ensure a customer receives a frictionless, consistent experience that meets their needs.

For a customer to buy and keep buying from you, they need to trust you. And trust comes from the belief you understand them, get what their pains and needs are, and can help them.

Having this understanding comes from empathy.

While empathy is the ability to have a deep emotional understanding of another’s feelings or problems, it’s much more.

Building customer empathy

To build customer empathy, a customer service professional needs to wear many hats. The many facets of building empathy involve building relationships, building innovative solutions, advocating for the customer, and catalyzing change. It is up to customer service leaders to ensure that they empower their agents to do all this and more.

It’s about building relationships 

The customer service professional must listen, understand, and communicate with authenticity. To be able to listen, understand, and communicate with the intent to learn and help without judgment requires empathy for the customer.

Being an innovative solutions expert

The customer care professional must know products and services that will help customers be successful. And they must know the solutions that will help fix problems to drive better experiences. They also must be innovative to come up with new and fresh ideas to drive better experiences. This doesn’t happen without operating from a place of empathy.

Advocating for the Customer

The customer care professional ensures the customer is central to the organization by representing their interests inside the organization. They must know the customer’s story well enough to communicate it with conviction across the organization so it resonates with key stakeholders. This requires the customer care professional to take ownership of the problem and make the customers’ priorities their priorities. 

Coaching

The customer care professional is the master uniter in the organization. They educate the organization about the customer, and why the organization must take an outside-in approach to ensure the customer receives a high-value experience. The customer care professional helps align and collaborate with departments to ensure everyone is rowing in the same direction. This requires selfless empathy for fellow coworkers and the customer.

Catalyzing change

Customer care professionals are looking to make a difference by engaging their  organizations to drive meaningful change on behalf of the customer. When we obtain feedback from the customer, we need to ensure their voice is heard. We do so by serving as an influencer and negotiator across the organization to get the customer’s voice into improvements we make. So, to be effective, customer care professionals must be skilled at emotional intelligence, which has as its foundation, empathy.

Analyzing Data

The customer care professional must know what is beneath the metrics they monitor, understand the trends, identify insights to help make experiences better for the customer, and align business and operational metrics to help customers achieve business goals. This understanding comes from empathy.

But empathy doesn’t just happen. It’s a muscle that must be worked every day.

Empathy Training for Customer Service

You can’t give lip-service to empathy. Empathy is all about being authentic and showing customers you care. Otherwise, any attempt at empathy will fall short.

Ozonetel, in a recent blog post, cited eight reasons that customers don’t like customer care. These reasons tend to add to reasons a customer should not trust a brand. Every reason can be flipped from why they don’t like your customer care team to why they do – by doing one simple thing – showing empathy, knowing what the customer wants and giving it to them.

To be clear, customer empathy is easier said than done. And it’s not only about being able to put yourself in your customer’s shoes. 

So how can customer care teams show empathy on a daily basis?  How can you train them to be more empathetic?There are certain skills customer service teams can learn and practice so empathy is engrained in their DNA.

Be an active listener. 

When engaging with customers are you picking up on subtle and not so subtle cues?

Let the customer get whatever they want to get out, out. Let them get their frustrations out. Picking up on cues will help you ask more leading questions to find out root causes of issues and so you can help them straight away.

Also, make positive statements to gain a customer’s confidence and trust to prompt them to share more. Engaging with them to find out more will give them piece of mind and provide you with more information so you can help them. And show them you care about what they are saying. Restate and summarize what they’ve said to ensure complete understanding. Only when they feel they’ve been heard will they trust you.

Be a soothing voice. That alone will make them feel someone is on their side.

Respond empathically.

Be very methodical in the words you use to respond. Customers pick up on the words we use and they act as triggers to show whether we’re listening and care. 

Use summarizing and leading questions that support what the customer has just communicated to you and to find out more. 

Communicate with appreciation such as “thank you for spending time bringing this to our attention” and urgency such as “I will get back with you as soon as I have an update.”

Take empathic action.

When the customer tells you their plight, can your organization provide active solutions that are timely? Are your teams aligned to actively solve customer issues with immediacy? 

The last thing anyone needs is for you to promise the customer a timely resolution but your internal teams are not aligned to fix the issue expeditiously. 

Close the loop with the customer.

Keep the customer informed with what’s going on with the resolution of their issue. Let them know when you will contact them next, let them know things that you are doing or things you did to solve their issue. This builds customer trust and increases customer loyalty. 

Practice removing jargon from your everyday language

It’s so easy to speak in jargon, especially if it’s engrained in your company’s culture. But do customers understand it? Use words and phrases that a 10-year-old could easily understand. This leads to more open and effective communication. Practice jargon-free talk with your coworkers.

Also use words that resonate with the customer. Speak in their language. Don’t know how to do this? Review chat scripts, feedback from customers, audio and video tapes; restate and summarize what customers tell you when engaging with them; etc. 

Empathy is the #1 skill that a customer care professional has in their toolbox. But it is a muscle that must be exercised every day to drive customer value and loyalty. Remember, practice makes perfect.

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